The recent Test series against Pakistan taught me a multitude of things. Firstly, Alistair Cook’s concentration is as marvellous as his technique, I have unholy feelings towards Joe Root while he is batting, and no one builds better roads than the UAE (see the first Test innings).
The most poignant lesson, however, came after the first innings of the first Test. Poor Adil Rashid, who has waited for a Test debut almost as long as Cook has waited for a competent opening partner, made his bow in the highest form of the game. His reward for such a moment? Almost universal criticism.
Granted, in the first innings, Rashid opened with the worst Test figures on a debut innings by anyone with 0-163. However, as a collective, England fans reacted, almost predictably, by calling for his head.
I imagine the same people who had belittled England’s selectors for not picking the Yorkshire spinner were the same ones calling for an unprecedented, mid-match dropping. England is better than everywhere else at creating pressure at the top of its sports. The media scrutiny and the vast array of internet experts found on social media makes the spotlight more intense, more unbearable than ever.
Rashid’s debut with the ball was the perfect embodiment of the dichotomy this creates and the reactions that most England fans have. Players either flourish or fail under this pressure, and are lauded or slated accordingly.
You can, therefore, imagine my joy when Rashid took five wickets in the second innings as England gave themselves a chance at a victory that looked impossible before Rashid’s intervention. Many a keyboard critic crawled back into their corner of the internet, waiting for the next debutant to drop a catch, misfield or lose their wicket. This has to be one of the unhealthiest cultures found in global sports, close behind doping in athletics and FIFA in general – but those topics require different articles for different times.
Let us take a more global example of this dichotomy, in the form of Manchester United and England captain, Wayne Rooney.
Undeniably, Rooney is one of the most gifted players of his generation. Equally as unavoidable are perpetual attempts by either himself or his management to waste or misuse his talents – a coattail on which the English public has been pulling on since 2008.
Depending on what week it is or in which direction the wind is blowing, Rooney could be the greatest English player of his generation or the biggest waste of talent in living memory. It’s hardly surprising that Rooney has hit out at fans in the past. Frankly, I’m amazed he doesn’t do so more regularly.
Once more, the media and the public are to blame for such an image. It does not do to be average in this day, it seems you must be awful or brilliant and there is little in the way of middle ground.
Those stuck in the apparent doldrums of mediocrity are cast as ineffectual, and are therefore awful as well – see Joe Allen for the perfect example. The evolution of sport, due largely to the increase in access to information and round the clock coverage, has made the demands of being an athlete far more than physical.
Presently, people expect athletes to immediately reproduce what they have seen on a YouTube video, or single-handedly win games because some bloke on Twitter said they hadn’t contributed for a little while so they’re ‘due a performance.’
Before video profiles of players and databases were available to the public, sportspeople were judged on merit and given time to establish themselves before being labelled or judged. Now, they have to have the mental strength to ignore the diatribe from the terraces and focus on playing, performing and, ultimately, earning their living.
Should it be that athletes are surveyed and analysed in a manner that would make Edward Snowden’s toes curl? Should we confirm with the next generation that this sort of vitriol is acceptable as long as the target earns swathes of money?
Ultimately, what Adil Rashid’s maiden test outing did, was remind me that sport is not an event any more. It is a soap opera, driven forward by a thirst for drama and excitement and, as such, it will be bled dry by the masses who are searching for the next story.